Monday, May 30, 2005


I pulled my back, and I've been spending most of the time I'd ordinarly spend online flat on my back. So that's why I haven't been responding to your lovely emails & comments.

But I just discovered that back in March, qB as well as Abdul-Walid, recorded my post about walking in Forest Park, and I listened to it this morning. I'm overwhelmed. Hers is beautiful too.

Since people were asking for sound, here are links to both versions -- I promise you done much better than I could.



Thursday, May 26, 2005

Jonquil among the Amish

I frowned. "I'll wait till you're up, anyway. In case you come down."

"Okay," she answered cheerfully, and hopped out of the van into the night.

She had forgotten her key, so she was going to climb the tree up to her second-floor window. She climbed not like a cat, as I had expected, but like a boy, like Tom Sawyer, with vigor but no grace. In the faint night-glow of a distant street-lamp I watched her scramble up. When she was all the way up she waved. I could go now. She was safe.

I feel odd, waiting for her to go in. I have always waited for kids and for women. And lately I've taken to waiting for just everyone, at night, to get safely into their house. But especially a seventeen-year-old girl. With Jonquil, I feel a little silly, knowing how unprotected a life she has led, with her undependable parents, her peripatetic life, her scrounging of meals. What does she make of me, waiting for her to get in, when her father doesn't even check to see if she's gotten home of an evening?

She watched me intently, Martha said, while I read to them. I think our household is a curiosity to her -- an intact household, no big fights, no drinking, no drugs, no television. We do something as quaint as read aloud. We say please and thank you. Martha's nephews refer to us as "Amish."

Jonquil's a survivor. I was impressed with her when I first met her, because she was socially an adult, carefully thanking us for everything, warily monitoring how much impact she was having on the household, watching for signs of irritation. Touching base with both of us. Nice, in a way, after thoughtless kids, but it grieves me. She's been doing this, I bet, since she was ten. Scoping out refuges, maintaining connections, just in case she needs them.

She's a beautiful girl, brown and slim, with wide dark eyes and an engaging smile. It gives me an odd twinge, to be a generation older than she. I remember being intoxicated by girls that age. I still was, when I was in my thirties, sometimes. But not now. It's not just that she's a friend of my son. I've crossed some kind of boundary. I don't live in that country now.

Her friendship with Alan puzzles and pleases me. They aren't lovers -- I don't think so at least -- but I've found them on the couch, Jonquil sleeping with her head on Alan's chest. They're affectionate in a casual and completely unselfconscious way. They play Dungeons & Dragons and computer games. They butt and punch each other like billy-goats. Perhaps she comes here to be a little girl, to be un-grown-up. Most of the world, I imagine, is pressing her very hard to be adult. Here at the Amish household, with a fourteen-year-old boy who is in many ways young for his age -- who still likes Pokemon and has a strict sense of propriety (where did that come from? Not from us) -- she can play.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Past the Midway

This wind moves slowly, hesitantly. Dry grass whispers. Nothing else moving in all this empty country.

When Dante gets to the very bottom of Hell, there is only one way to go on: he has to climb down the body of Satan, who is locked in the ice there. He climbs down and then suddenly he's climbing up. He's gone through. Now he's in Purgatory, at the base of a great mountain. What was down is up, what was up is down.

It's a powerfully imagined moment. Spoiled for me, the first time I read it, by my superimposition of my own civilization's idea of how gravity works. Of course, I thought, at the center of the Earth, supposing there could be a nicely un-pressurized space down there, you'd simply be weightless; all the gravitational forces would balance out. So I completely missed the incredible vertigo of that conception. I don't know whether it's originally Dante's notion, or somebody else's, but the daring of it rivals Newton's. It's actually very similar to Newton's: it's daring to think, "what if 'up' isn't fixed and universal?"

"Midway in my life's journey," begins Dante. Wherever I am in my own, I'm well past that. In the past ten years I've climbed past the Devil's waist. I'm headed for death now. And I'm climbing up, not down.

You can watch the wind, in empty grassland. It's rising now. It swirls and bends the grass in great sweeps and eddies. Roger Ascham wrote about how falling snow makes it possible to see the wind; grass does the same thing.

Hell is behind me, then. This is a different melancholy, one that doesn't occlude joy. The sadness of wasted time, of the huge weight of mistake and confusion that even this one brief life has accumulated. Memory, the Tibetans say, dies with the body. I'm grateful for that. It doesn't reincarnate. However the Buddha knew about his past lives, it wasn't by memory.

Not exactly raining, but the wind carries a wetness in it. A sting across my face.

Hail to the jewel in the grassland. Fare forward, you who think you are travelling. It's enough.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Not Eating Chocolate

My doctor having threatened me with anti-cholesterol medicine again, I'm back to monitoring what I eat. Since being so fussed about work, the past six months, I'd gained back about fifteen pounds. (I'm still fussed about work, but incurring coronary problems won't help matters any.)

My diet consists of eschewing refined sugar and saturated fat,* and going light on "white stuff" generally (white rice, white bread, potatos, pasta). It's simple, and it's worked -- of course, all diets work for me, if I follow them. The advantage to this one is that I seem to be able to stick to it for weeks at a time, and picturing hewing to it for the rest of my days doesn't depress me.

Which brings me to what I intended to post about. I'm experimenting with a new way of responding to cravings. The first thing to do, of course, is to see if I'm hungry, and if I am, to eat something. But that only stops them about half the time. So I've been watching what my mind really does, when I'm craving something, and, as usual, it's not exactly what I thought it did. What really happens -- and why it's so unpleasant -- is that I start battling the desire, trying to fight it down, trying to replace it with the desire to lose weight and be healthy. Pretty soon most of my consciousness gets drawn into the battle. And if I cave in, it's not so much because I want the treat so badly, as that I want my damn mind back, so I can pay attention to other things. I'm just tired of the fight. It doesn't seem worth it.

And actually, I think I'm right. It's not worth it. Having my mind snarled up like that for half of my waking life would lose me more years of life worth living than an early death by heart failure would. There's nothing stupid or weak about capitulating at that point. It's just sense.

But it has occurred to me lately, watching the battle royale escalating, that there's another way to play this game. I don't actually need to stop wanting chocolate. I just need to not eat it. So I've been trying, lately, to respond to a craving by welcoming it. Instead of trying to head myself off from thoughts of chocolate, or minimize how much I want it, I invite myself to dwell on it. Luxuriate in the fantasy of eating it: try to call to mind exactly how it tastes, exactly how my body responds -- the lift of euphoria, the jets of saliva, the way the different flavors (chocolate being such a marvellously complex set of tastes) greet the sides and the back of the tongue. The crunch of nuts between my teeth, the raking of the sweetness against my palate. The whole thing.

It helps to know, as I have learned from sitting Shamatha, that thoughts, including cravings, go away. They only stay because we're holding them in place, somehow (most often, by trying to make them go away.)

(Milarepa came back to his cave one day to find it infested with demons. He tried everything to make them go away -- physical violence, incantations, argument. Nothing worked. Finally he decided that they were just there to stay, and he invited them to sit down and have some tea, and join him in meditation. And at that, so the story goes, the demons vanished.)

So far I've been having good success with this. Of course, if you have much experience with dieting, you'll know that you're always finding solutions like this. They work for awhile and then suddenly they don't anymore. I just hope I'm mindful enough to watch what's really happening, when this stops working.

*Except my morning eggs. If it's a choice between death and my morning eggs, well -- come, seeling death! But actually eggs aren't that bad in the saturated-fat department; they just got a bad name because of the superstition that dietary cholesterol converts directly to blood cholesterol.

Friday, May 20, 2005

And Rain

A dark, dark morning, rain pelting down, thunder grumbling overhead. Each car on the freeway kicking up its own wake of spray, the water weeping off the windshield in sheets, headlights glowing yellow through the mist.

I love this rain. I want to wallow in it, strip off my clothes and roll in the muddy grass, plunge my face into the rushing gutters. Cold, clean, silvery rain against the slate and steel sky, against the dark ragged firs. This is home, this drenched, shadowed, gleaming world.

So come kiss me, sweet-and-fifty. Youth's a stuff that won't endure, but rain's a stuff that will.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Wedding Song

Let us not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. The love that can be named
Is not the true Love; the way that can be altered,
Alteration found, is not the Way.

Oh no! It is an ever-fixed mark
Upon a burning page; it is not time's fool,
Love is the boundary of Heaven and Earth,
Darkness of darkness, beginning of an end;

Even to the edge of doom, she scatters
A richer darkness, a welling redness, a fever
In the blood. What we do not admit, she marries,
Without impediments and without a name.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Inside, Outside

Really foul-smelling vomit, the kind you get from an empty stomach, yellowy-cream-colored and lightly curded. Some of those Pokemon cards were beyond redemption. His boots were splashed, but just barely -- given the clutter of his room, he managed to land an awful lot of it on the bare floor. We went through a whole roll of paper towels, sopping it up, while he shuddered and coughed in the shower. Round two for him, as it's been for most of us -- we have at least two viruses haunting the house.

2:00 am. Martha has just headed back to bed, ominously carrying a pot. Of course it's difficult to do this kind of cleanup without feeling nauseous. I don't feel grand myself.

Now Alan's on the couch. I think he's just fallen asleep -- he's put his gameboy aside, and he's lying still, anyway. He trailed up to bed very early this evening. (Last evening, I guess.) I read him a few pages of James Herriot. Stopped reading, and there was just the quiet breathing. Already asleep.

Class at 9:00 am. A required class on ISO processes. (ISO, for the uninitiated, stands for "International Standards Organization." I am not making this up.) So sleeping would make more sense than blogging. But I've been spending my time at work actually working, and I miss this spinning of filament, filament, filament, as Walt would say. This texture, as Suzanne would say. But suddenly I'm weary. I don't think I have a lot of thread left in the sac. Time to go wandering again through the halls of sleep, light and shadow, door and wall. Turning landscapes, heavy with consequence.

Good night, you moonlight ladies.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Drove home at twilight over the old steel Hawthorne Bridge, in a pounding rain. I looked half a mile upriver to where the concrete Marquam Bridge, the freeway bridge, soars high over the Willamette. Looked down at where its pale pylons disappeared into the gray water. The water was not empty. Five dragon-boats huddled there, at haphazard angles to each other, like pick-up sticks. Sheltering under the bridge, I suppose, though it couldn't have been much shelter. Their bright colors were almost, but not quite, obscured by the sheets of rain.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Last Time I Saw You

Doctor Hendin, the dear man, seems to think that I'd be startled by being at risk for death. Or that the risk of death would make me eat differently. He doesn't understand that when I overeat I am trying to die. That's the whole point. Die, shuddering, in french fries and hazelnut chocolate milkshakes. Die, shuddering, in the arms of that girl with the dark eyes. What else?

The idea that death is a critical turning point is the real escapist fantasy of our people. There is always a way out, we tell ourselves, and we hug that fantasy close. It's a fantasy in any case. If you're still there after you die, you will be somewhere, but not out. Not free of conditions and obligations. And if you're not still there, you're not free. You're just not there.

No. If we're ever going to be free, we're already free. And conversely, of course, if we're not free now, we never will be.

Light bleeds through the tall windows. Wavering shadows. A tremble of movement outside.

The truth is, that we're always still there. After the milkshake, after the dark-eyed girl. Dream follows waking; waking follows dream. The light comes and goes. What makes us think it will ever be otherwise?

Go out, walk to the edge of the trees, and listen. With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain. The dark fir branches heave restlessly; the needles flicker and gleam. A spray of rain blows up against my face.

I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

What it means to sleep. To make the crossing. Often, falling asleep, I become aware that I'm falling. I think -- I could stop myself. Last chance. But I turn from the waking world, cross willingly into other worlds. Because when I'm already in the crossing, I can see both ways, and forward is no darker, no narrower, than back. I go on down the corridor. I don't know what happens then. I don't know now, I mean. Even the dreams that we sometimes remember, I think, are the shallow-water dreams. The deep-sea ones never come to light. Who do I know, there? Where do we go together?

The last time I saw you, you stopped at the crossing, and kissed my cheek. I didn't know it was a farewell until I looked back, and saw that you and the corridor were gone.

Misguided, to go looking for the little death of the body, as if that would change anything. The waking mind dies every night. That's one place to go looking.

Long ago there was a man who asked his students to pray that he would be reborn in the hell realms. So much suffering there to allay. He walks in that huge darkness, now, carrying a little light. I often wonder about the students who reluctantly, fearfully, sent him there. They can't wish him back, without wishing him less compassionate. Do they wish they had been brave enough to follow? Do they glimpse him, at crossings, and hesitate for that fatal moment, between longing and fear, as the way closes? A tiny point of light, in all that dark.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


One of my two favorite professors at Evergreen was David Marr. I took his courses even though what he taught was American Studies, and I'm not ordinarily very interested in American thought or letters. But David always challenged us -- he was constitutionally incapable of following a party line, any party line. He made us think hard about our origins and presuppositions. His holy mission was to rout out sloppy writing and sloppy thinking. He welcomed dissent -- one of the few people I've known who really did. He was much happier with forceful disagreement than with vague agreement. In a notably scruffy and shaggy faculty, he was always trim and precise. Short-haired, clean-shaven, neatly dressed, almost prim: in that haven of bearded radicals, his bare face glowed with an unearthly radiance.

He came to a party of ours one night, at our shabby one-bedroom duplex. On finding out that Martha and I were natives of Oregon, he declared himself unsurprised. We seemed like Oregonians, he said. In the manner of one of his seminar participants, I immediately demanded details and evidence. What were Oregonians like?

A familiar pause, while his eyes widened behind their glasses and he consulted some inner oracle. Then he pronounced: "They don't take shit offa nobody."


Why does Marr come to mind now? Partly because it was from him that I learned to question American individualism. He was an unabashed Socialist, of an un-trendy political sort. He prefigured a lot of the ideas about family that have since been taken up, in a weak eviscerated way, by neo-cons. Almost any social structure that stood in the way of Capitialism was okay by him. To him, individualism was the ideology by which Capitalism divided and separated us, leaving us by turns hoodwinked consumers and dependent, servile wage-earners -- in either case fragmented, alone, and disempowered, thinking we were pursuing our individual happiness while collectively we were being backed into a smaller and smaller life. We worked longer hours, and a whispering media always urged us to capitulate to the little desires of flesh and vanity, while the larger desires for freedom and meaning withered.


To me, getting backed into a purely private spiritual life is letting Capitalism have its way with me. Churches, like families, like enduring friendships, are bastions of non-Capitalist association, places where the rules of Capital are held at bay. They're the places where we say no. No, everything is not for sale. No, I am not, ultimately, a commodity. Some things are not on the market. By the rules of Capitalism, one should "trade-up" when one has a better market position. Get a better house, a younger wife, a classier friend, a church with better connections. And you see people doing that, sometimes. But fewer than you might fear, given the enormous current setting in that way.

I love, about my sangha, that a man like Michael has authority and influence over people who make five times as much money as he does. That people simply give money to the sangha or to the retreat project, with no expectation of ever profiting from them. To me every inch of retreat-land ground, every minute of worship at the urban center, is another thumb of the nose at Capitalism. Every practice-question raised in a public space is an assertion that the life of the spirit is something we have in common, something that connects us, something we do together in public. Capitalism hates that. It wants us to consume our individually-packaged spiritual commodities in private, convinced that we're all following our unique absolute freedom.


Now, this does not mean that I think everybody can or should be "churched." People repeatedly take me to mean that. I'm not sure why -- I'm sure I'm saying something that can be construed that way, but I don't know what. There are plenty of people who simply don't live within reach of any church that they could be a part of. And there are some people whose spiritual lives are at once very intense and very fragile, for whom a group would simply be disaster. The last thing those people should do is "hold their nose and go to church," or deliberately put themselves in the way of ruining their practice. Our first spiritual responsibility, always, is to ourselves.

But it's not our only spiritual responsibility. Every life should have in it some spiritual service, some opening to the spiritual life of others. It doesn't have to be sitting in a row of pews or a line of zafus. It can be writing a blog (i'm thinking of Paula's "transcendental etudes," here.) It can be making a space for reverence in your child's life. It can even be simply holding ourselves open to the religious aspirations of others, making an effort to believe in their reality and validity, without ever saying or doing a thing in "the real world."

There's nothing wrong, in fact there's a great deal right, with a private spiritual practice. But it's a mistake to hold it as something we do only for ourselves.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Wondering Again

I don't know what she wanted, though it comes in whispers through the half-light of forgotten attics. A father. A teacher. A troupe to dance with.

All good. Can be. Could be.

But each has opposites. A child. A student. A troupe to break with.

No church that's already there will do you much good. It's the church you would make by being there that serves.

As Andi goes in one door, and Paula goes out another, I wonder, again.

There were times when Kagyu Changchub Choling was the loneliest place in the world for me. Months when my heart broke every Sunday night, drawn by the will o' the wisp of community out into the cold, nauseating marshes of my own inability, my own unwillingness, my own unfitness. My aloneness.

It's woven through me now, for good and ill. It might well the last place that ever takes root in me.

I make my three prostrations; my forehead touches the bare wood. I speak hesitantly and unclearly. I light the lamps. Wipe my hands on my jeans. Outside, the shouts of people playing basketball on the street, the knocking of the ball on the pavement. A blare of radio from a passing car. Birdsong.

"Until the summit of enlightenment is reached I and all beings go for refuge . . ." I intone. It's ugly. Unnatural and formal without being beautful. The Tibetans chant these verses beautifully in their tonal language -- we drag along in a monotone that doesn't even scan. Someday some Westerner will make it poetry and find a way to make it beautiful. For now it's only beautiful for what it says, and who says it. There's always somebody bulling their way through it discordantly, and somebody who manages to sing it. ". . . to the Buddha, the Dharma, and to the supreme assembly of the Sangha . . ."

The three Jewels of Refuge. And then the Bodhicitta prayer; ". . . may I realize Buddhahood, in order to help all sentient beings."

It is something, to hear a roomful of people say those words. No, we don't mean them, of course we don't. But we aspire to mean them. & where else could it start?